A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.
I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.
And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.
Some of you have met Eli Stein before; he's written Litkicks articles about P. G. Wodehouse and Al Jaffee, and he's my father. He's also a cartoonist with a body of published work dating back to the 1950s. If you've read a lot of the Wall Street Journal or Chronicle of Higher Education or Good Housekeeping or National Enquirer, you've probably seen his work, and might recognize his clean, round graphic style, which to my admiring filial eye always resembled the classic drawing style of Syd Hoff or Charles Schulz.
It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.
Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.
My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.
In the past 34 years I've seen Lou Reed in concert nine times. The last show was in 2011. The first was on July 10, 1979 at a nightclub called My Father's Place in Roslyn, Long Island. I was 17 years old.
Why did I spend 34 years of my life going to Lou Reed concerts? I suppose I was searching for Lou -- not as a father figure (who would want Lou Reed as a father?) nor as a guru (he really didn't seem to have his shit together at times). I was searching for him as a magus, a creator of Dionysian musical experiences, a demonic master of ceremonies. His concerts were legendarily wild and unpredictable, and his reputation for onstage insanity was at a peak by the late 1970s.
Supposedly a crazed drug addict in real life, Lou was known to act out intense psychodramas on stage. Sometimes he wore kabuki makeup. Sometimes his hair was bright blond and he pretended to shoot up on stage. Sometimes he harangued his audience with hilarious monologues (one of these nights was immortalized in the great 1978 live album Take No Prisoners). Sometimes he didn't say a word and just played.
Some people think Literary Kicks is a blog. That's because I pretend it is.
However, I only started to describing Litkicks as a blog in the mid-2000s, by which time the site had already gone through a lot of changes. No matter what format Litkicks is in, it is always for me a part of a single extended experiment.
The experiment is about technology and communication, an exercise in digitally-enabled discussion, cultural reflevity and personal expression. I was a techie before I began running a website, and I like to use Litkicks the way a techie uses a laboratory. I use it to explore new ways to reach people with words, to see what happens when strangers around the world make real-time connections through shared ideas. It's an experiment I also carry out within the various web development projects I do for a living -- because, no matter how mundane a project is (luckily, most of the time, I get to work on projects I like), every web project is an experiment in mass communication. That's what makes the work always an exciting and suspenseful challenge.
There is no Philosophy Weekend this weekend because lately I've been back in the lab in a major way, cooking up a new website that will soon launch as a part of Literary Kicks. The new website will be devoted to poetry. Not snooty poetry of the type that wins awards in ballrooms for people wearing tuxedos, but rather the kinds of poetry that all of us write and share, even when we don't know we're doing so.
I had an idea for a blog post. I'm on summer vacation -- not exactly on a beach, but near one -- so I didn't finish it in time. Since my idea was for a blog post about the idea of a blog post, I'm not sure if this is that blog post, or if this is a blog post about that blog post. I really have no idea.
The story of Edward Snowden, Booz Allen/NSA/Prism whistleblower, is a rorschach test. Everybody sees something different in it. Me, I told you how I felt this weekend (though I wrote that blog post before the identity of Edward Snowden had been revealed). I consider Edward Snowden a hero, in the proud tradition of Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning -- though I'm more interested in the attack on Booz Allen Hamilton (a sycophantic government/military contractor that's been soaking the American taxpayer for years) than I am in the attack on the National Security Agency. I'm glad Snowden revealed the facts of PRISM, and I believe a helpful public dialogue about privacy in the Internet age is beginning to emerge.
I have a unique angle on this topic, because databases are my thing. They've been my thing since the early 1990s, when I became an expert in SQL (Structured Query Language, the most prevalent computer language in the world) data modeling and database application development. My favorite database is MySQL, the powerful open source platform. (This is the database world equivalent of saying that my favorite ice cream is vanilla, since MySQL is certainly the traditional choice for favorite open source database, but I can't help it.) MySQL powers Litkicks, and it probably powers most of the websites you've visited today.
As hard as this is to believe, this summer will mark the 19th birthday of Literary Kicks. I really have no idea why I've been doing it this long. I once had a reason; I forgot it. I guess I'm still having fun, though sometimes it's hard to tell.
I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.